Uber and taxi drivers may soon win right to unionize in Seattle

Bill heading to City Council vote would establish collective bargaining system for traditional and app-based drivers

Jamaal, a 49-year-old immigrant from East Africa, drives both for Uber and a local dispatch company in Seattle. He works 60 to 70 hours per week, starting each day at 3 or 4 a.m. and accepting whichever fare comes first: a call from East Side for Hire or a passenger request on his Uber app.

The Uber gigs are usually much less profitable, he says. Low base rates and per-mile fees often net him a fraction of what he earns through the vehicle-for-hire company — "I do Uber because I need the extra money," Jamaal said. (He asked that his real name not be used for fear of retaliation.)

Under current laws, Jamaal is an independent contractor entitled to few protections. But, "Believe me, you feel you're an employee. Uber has put the power in [customers'] hands, and you feel abused," he said, referring to the app's rate-your-driver function. He believes that a worker association — a union — could help improve his lot. 

This week, the Seattle City Council will vote on a bill that advocates say gives both app-based drivers and traditional cabbies a means of improving their working conditions: the right to unionize. If, as expected, the majority of councilmembers vote "yes" and the mayor does not object, Seattle would become the first city to establish collective bargaining in this segment of the transportation industry.

The proposed ordinance would allow drivers who take at least 150 trips within a 30-day period to collectively choose an “exclusive driver representative” to negotiate on their behalf with app-based, yellow cab and vehicle-for-hire companies and the city. The measure would not convert drivers into employees except for this limited purpose — a strategy originally developed by unions representing home health aides and child-care providers.

In Washington state, as in most of the United States, taxi and Uber drivers are presumptively classified as independent contractors exempt from the minimum wage, workers’ compensation and the right to form a union. Yet this issue is being litigated fiercely, with some drivers alleging that companies like Uber and Lyft are in fact employers that exercise a high degree of control over their workers.

The text of the Seattle bill says that many businesses “rely on the drivers being classified as independent contractors” instead of employees, a practice that undermines city "efforts to create opportunities for all workers in Seattle to earn a living wage."

The legislation is sponsored by Councilmember Mike O’Brien and backed by Teamsters Local 117, a union that organizes taxi, Uber and Lyft drivers. "There's a lot of people in this community who use Uber and like the service they deliver but also support the idea that drivers should be treated fairly," O'Brien said.

'When you’re dealing with a company that has a $61 billion valuation, power has to come from the drivers themselves.'

Leonard Smith

Teamsters Local 117

Seattle’s established vehicle-for-hire market is relatively small: fewer than 2,000 drivers [PDF] serve 670,000 city residents and a greater-metropolitan population many times that size. Uber and Lyft, which until recently operated wholly outside municipal and county regulatory structures, are gaining significant market share. David Plouffe, chief adviser to Uber and former campaign manager for President Barack Obama, announced on a visit to Seattle last week that the company has 10,000 “driver-partners” on local roads.

It’s impossible to verify these numbers or determine how many drivers are part- versus full-time. Uber and Lyft have sued cities and states in court to enjoin disclosure of such facts under freedom-of-information laws.

Uber did not respond to requests for comment for this article.

Lyft representative Chelsea Wilson wrote in an email: “We believe the proposed ordinance threatens the privacy of drivers, imposes substantial costs on passengers and the City, and conflicts with longstanding federal law. We have urged the full Council and the Mayor to reject the bill.”

Wilson referenced an analysis of the bill by Fred Podesta, Seattle’s director of finance and administrative services, that raises legal and logistical concerns about the mechanics of collective bargaining in this sector [PDF]. O'Brien says these issues have now been addressed but expects that the ordinance, if passed, will give rise to litigation.

Not all app-based drivers support the union effort. Erin Nicole, 29, a part-time Lyft driver in Seattle, worries that a union could limit her freedom on the job. Although the bill as written does not affect those who drive on a casual basis, she said full-time drivers should weigh the costs and benefits. “If you’re unionized, you have to work certain hours," she said. "People like the [current] flexibility, [especially if] they’re a single parent."

Bhairavi Desai, director of the National Taxi Workers Alliance of the AFL-CIO labor confederation, sees broader meaning in the legislation. "The real value of the Seattle bill is a recognition from the City Council saying, ‘Here is a workforce that provides a public service, is disenfranchised and has barriers to organizing,' ” she said. Over the past 20 years, the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, also led by Desai, has organized thousands of New York City taxi cab drivers, all of them independent contractors. It counts some 5,000 Uber drivers among its members.

In Seattle, Teamsters Local 117 began mobilizing taxi drivers a decade ago, said Leonard Smith, director of organizing. But the campaign gained momentum with the arrival of Uber and calls for a $15 minimum wage in 2013. Employees in Seattle and Sea-Tac, home to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, must now be paid at least $15 per hour, while taxi and app-based drivers often earn far less, he said. “When you’re dealing with a company that has a $61 billion valuation, power has to come from the drivers themselves. … The majority of drivers hope to have a union, and they will make a decision about how they want it to function.”

Meanwhile, in states like Ohio, Florida, North Carolina, Arkansas and Indiana, Uber, Lyft and similar corporations have aggressively lobbied for bills designating all drivers independent contractors. Rebecca Smith, deputy director of the National Employment Law Project in Seattle, said these efforts are similar to those used by the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council to limit rights on the job. "A lot of states unfortunately exempt particular categories of workers from [labor] coverage, and this is just another incidence of that," she said. "But I also think we're going to see some pushback... Many people are looking to Seattle as a model."

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